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Russian athletes visit air base in Syria used to strike IS


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AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev

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MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian athletes including the women's pole vault world record holder, Yelena Isinbayeva, have visited an air base in Syria that Russia uses to target Islamic State fighters.

Isinbayeva, who won gold at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics but like most Russian track and field athletes was banned from competing in Rio, led a group of Russian athletes to the Hemeimeem base in the government-controlled part of Syria.

Russian television on Monday showed footage of Isinbayeva, dressed in a white T-shirt, leading a morning workout for several dozen soldiers, doing sit-ups with the troops and climbing a rope.

Isinbayeva, who this month retired from competition and won election to the International Olympic Committee as an athletes' representative, said she was proud to be at the base to boost the troops' morale.

"Everything here fills me with patriotism and pride," she said.

The pole vaulter, who spent the night in the area, said she and other Russian athletes were not disturbed by the roar of Russian jets taking off from the base on bombing missions.

"Every time a fighter jet took off, it was like a lullaby we had been waiting for to put us to sleep," she said.

Russia, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has been bombing IS militants and supporting Assad's offensive for nearly a year now.

Several Russian athletes, including wrestler Soslan Ramonov, planted trees at the air base.

"It's a big honor for me," said Ramonov, a wrestler who won gold at Rio in the 65-kilogram men's freestyle event. "I've planted a tree for the first time in my life, hopefully not the last time."

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